The querceta of Philadelphia

Philadelphia is a green country town, a city of trees, and, even more specifically (or generically), a city of oaks – in addition to the Michaux Grove, there is also the collection of oaks (a quercetum, if you will) at Clifford Park (where one might also find Thomas Mansion); and there is also more just south of the American Philosophical Society’s library building on the east side of 5th Street, just below Chestnut Street; and there’s even more, and with a nice diversity, too, behind the High School of Creative and Performing Arts in South Philadelphia (where the library once was); and all this in addition to the many majestic oaks planted throughout Philadelphia, among the many other genera planted around here.

At Clifford Park, in Germantown, there’s a big swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) right near Thomas Mansion, that is of a size to make one think it dates to the time of Mr. Thomas.  There’s also an oak there, along the driveway leading in from Wissahickon Avenue, a bit aways from the mansion, that looks from its leaves and habit to be a hybrid of pin oak (Q. palustris) and either scarlet (Q. coccinea) or black oak (Q. velutina) (there were no acorns underneath it, on the 4th of October, 2013 – but on a return trip on the 13th of September 2015, with Ned Barnard, we saw that the acorns were of a size and shape to suggest a hybrid of pin with either scarlet or black oak), and right nearby to that is an enormous shingle oak (Q. imbricaria); these two are also of a size to indicate that they date to Thomas’s time.

Nearer to Wissahickon Ave (and still at Clifford Park), along the driveway leading in to the park, is a row of oaks, the one after the other – bur (Q. macrocarpa), white (Q. alba), chestnut (Q. montana).  They’re evenly spaced, and so the row may well have continued on, but the line stops there now.  These trees, based on their size, were probably planted in the mid-20th century or so, and so would’ve been planted after the site came to the park in 1912.  There’s also an interesting row of trees that is perpendicular off Johnson, running parallel to Wissahickon – it starts with a turkey oak (Q. cerris), and then there’s a shagbark hickory, and then a red oak (Q. rubra), then a sourwood, and then two red maples, one on either side of the path there.  Based on the sizes of those oaks, they look to date to the late 19th or early 20th century, and so also are possibly from Thomas’s time.  There’s also red oaks planted throughout the park, some quite large, and therefore not young.

Elsewhere, downtown and part of Independence National Historic Park, in the open area, just south of the main building of the American Philosophical Society (on the east side of 5th Street), there are willow oak (Q. palustris), post oak (Q. stellata), Spanish oak crossed with willow oak (i.e., Q. falcata x phellos – this identification is based on leaf morphology), red oak (Q. rubra), pin oak (Q. palustris), and white oak (Q. alba).  Based on their sizes, these are much younger than the ones noted above, in Clifford Park, and are very much most likely late 20th century plantings.

And in South Philadelphia, behind the High School of Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), where the library used to be at Broad and Washington (the Ridgway building, which was originally built for the Library Company, in the 1870s), where the old Ridgway Rec Center used to be, there’s another collection of oaks: starting at 13th and Carpenter, just south of the swimming pool, along the path: bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), white oak (Q. alba), red (Q. rubra), swamp white (Q. bicolor), bur (again), scarlet (Q. coccinea), and black (Q. velutina).  Based on their sizes, they look to date from the late 19th or early 20th century.

Wissinoming Park also has some nice oaks:

And there are oaks in the World War 1 Memorial Grove in West Park:

Additionally, there’s the Michaux Quercetum (of Longwood, with the Morris Arbretum and the Forest Service), of which one may read more at the following links:

Bartram’s Garden also had a historic collection of oaks, as we see from the “Account of the Bartram’s Garden” from (1850)

“One path called “The Dark Walk,” was planted during John Bartram’s lifetime by his son with different species of oak.

Here may be seen the finest variety of the king of trees in our country; among them are splendid specimens of the Quercus macrocarpa, olivaeformis, alba, rubra, heterophylla, and lyrata. The Q macrocarpa (overcup white oak) measures sixty-three feet in height, and six feet in circumference. The American white oak, eighty-five feet, and thirteen feet in circumference. The Q heterophylla, marked by its lobed leaves was named by Michaux “Bartram’s Oak,” as it was produced from an acorn of his planting. The original tree grew at a short distance from the garden, and was cut down many years ago by mistake; but two trees raised from its acorns are flourishing near the oak walk, which, though they have lost the distinctive characteristics of the Bartram oak, still differ from Q phyllos.

It has been supposed of late years that the Bartram oak is only a hybrid, not a distinct species, but trees with all Michaux’s characteristics have been recently detected in Delaware.”

So what’s with all the oaks? Well, for one, they are very attractive and sturdy trees, that do quite well around here.

And also, as you may well have noticed, the name “Michaux” came up more than once in the descriptions of the above sites.  There were two of them – André Michaux and his son, François André Michaux – who, from the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries, worked on and wrote about plants, and especially trees, extensively, with a keen focus on oaks.  They also spent quite a bit of time in Philadelphia, and had close connections here.

And when Michaux the younger passed away in 1855, he left a fund to the American Philosophical Society, which in turn was used to plant and to grow oaks in Philadelphia.

More can be read about this here (Report upon Forestry Volume 1; 1878) and here (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Volume 18; 1879).

And so, in addition to their beauty and sturdiness, oaks have a historic connection to Philadelphia that is very special to this place – their roots run deep, their trunks grow tall, and their canopy covers broad areas, and here in Philadelphia, as we walk among them, we are enswathed in history from its deepest fundament, whether we know it or not.


1 thought on “The querceta of Philadelphia

  1. David, I enjoyed your post on oaks. I find trees planted as a legacy compelling, especially in the case of François André Michaux, as beautifully told in The querceta of Philadelphia. Ken


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